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SPANK GOLD: Edinburgh Festival 1996

See if you can guess how many Fringes they'd had by 1996 Part of the fun of these Spank Gold thingummies is the tension between the time I'm writing about, and the time when I'm actually doing the writing. And that's definitely the case here. Right now, it's August 2009, the Edinburgh Festivals are well under way... and I'm not there. One year off in every three, you know the score. (Nick's leading a posse up there instead: we might hear from him in due course, you never know.) So I'm here in London, writing about 1996... a year when I did go to the Festival, but had a slightly mediocre time of it, which led me to formulating that one-year-off-in-every-three rule.

The most talked about production at Edinburgh that year was one that didn't happen. Robert Lepage's one-man Hamlet adaptation, Elsinore, was set to be the highlight of the International Festival... until the entire run was called off at the last minute, when a wonky rivet in the stage machinery scuppered the show. There were a couple of big names in the Film Festival, at least, and they sort of compensated: but you'll see below that I was drifting back into old bad habits, rather like I did back in 1992. A break and a rethink were definitely on the cards. But in the meantime, here's what I saw that year.

Sunday August 11th
5.00pm: The Circus Of Horrors, Leith Links
9.30pm: Kaddish, Assembly Rooms

A few years after the death of Archaos, people were still trying to find some sort of replacement for them: and those people included Pierrot Bidon, the original creator of the motorcycle 'n' chainsaw circus. In a nod to British circus tradition, he ended up collaborating with several younger members of the Cottle family on The Circus Of Horrors, which for all its modish goth trappings wasn't much more than a watered-down version of what The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow were already infamous for. Mind you, it's still doing the rounds today, so they must have got something right. Kaddish was a song cycle about the Holocaust by the group Towering Inferno, led by the late Richard Wolfson. It promised to be an intense mix of industrial music and multimedia visuals, but for me it never quite achieved the expected level of power until its climax. Brian Eno claimed it was the most frightening record he'd ever heard, though, so your mileage may vary.

Monday August 12th
11.00am: Stereo + Crimes Of The Future, Filmhouse
2.45pm: International Animation, Cameo
4.00pm: Euan Macdonald Scene By Scene, ABC
6.00pm: The Wow Show, Assembly Rooms
7.30pm: The Van, Cameo
10.30pm: Bad Seed, Filmhouse

Two big name directors were in town for the Film Festival this year: David Cronenberg and Peter Greenaway. I'd never really considered the similarities between them before now. But this presentation of Cronenberg's first two features, Stereo and Crimes Of The Future - opening with a personal apology from the director himself - showed that in the early days, both directors were making similar sorts of films. Cronenberg's cheap scientific studies - shot silent, with deadpan voiceovers telling fantastical stories like they were laboratory observations - weren't all that different from what Greenaway was doing in short films like Water Wrackets. This was the beginning of a day heavily weighted towards Film Festival events, as you can see. The International Animation programme looks like a fairly unmemorable programme 13 years later: even Alyson Bell's Here I Sit, based on an Australian poem, turns out to be based on the least fun poem with that title.

If you're wondering who Euan Macdonald was and why he deserved a Scene By Scene talk to himself, he was the CGI guru who worked on the Scottish fantasy flick Dragonheart, which was this year's Opening Gala. In these days of DVD extras, we all know how the process of digital animation works now, but it was fascinating stuff back in '96. (Macdonald's still working today, currently wrapping the effects on Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol.) After a quick non-film interlude with the post-punk music hall stylings of The Wow Show, it was back to the Cameo for The Van - the least successful film of the Roddy Doyle trilogy, lacking the cinematic sweep of The Commitments and the intimacy of The Snapper. Finally, I suspect I only saw Bad Seed because director Carsten Fromberg was being touted as a Danish Tarantino, but I can't remember a thing about it now.

Crash, bang, wallop, what a picture Tuesday August 13th
11.00am: Portrait Of A Woman, Traverse
2.00pm: Greg Proops Chat Show, Pleasance
3.30pm: Pleasance Varieties, Pleasance
6.00pm: David Cronenberg Scene By Scene, ABC
7.30pm: The Pillow Book, Cameo
10.30pm: Shouting From The Scaffold, Traverse

A bad day for fuzzy memories, but there are a couple of sharp ones in the middle. Portrait Of A Woman was Michel Winaver's retelling of a famous French murder case, presented by the good people of Communicado, but it's not ringing any bells: and don't ask me who Greg Proops interviewed on his chat show, either. In a slightly less embarrassing brainfart, up until this week I could have sworn that this was the year I'd attended my first ever Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe. In fact, what I actually saw was Pleasance Varieties, an identically structured show in which Merv introduced a selection of acts who had shows at the various Pleasance venues. He even got chatting to me during one of his meet-the-audience links, trying to find out about the t-shirt I was wearing ("is that Yoko Ono?"), and failing to get much comic mileage out of my revelation that it was in fact Death of the Endless. As for the acts, Brelesque singer-songwriter Philip Jeays was the absolute standout, and it was a pleasure to make his acquaintance again earlier this year when he supported Robin Ince on tour.

Back to the Film Festival, and another Scene By Scene event: this time it was David Cronenberg's turn to talk us through "one of his classic movies" (to quote the programme). Except it was an open secret that he was going to discuss a few scenes from Crash, at a time when there were serious doubts over whether the film would be allowed a release in the UK. Cronenberg was happy to play along with the slightly conspiratorial nature of the evening, refusing to mention the film by name. Nothing was revealed that you couldn't subsequently have found out from the DVD commentary, but don't forget we didn't have DVD commentaries back then. It was entertaining enough an event for me to stay all the way to the end, and thus miss the first ten minutes of The Pillow Book. Which, for my money, is probably the last great film Peter Greenaway made: for all his waffling on about multimedia and image layering techniques, nothing he's done since has added anything to what he achieved with this one. Finally, Scaffold was a one-man show by stand-up Owen O'Neill: presumably one of his more structured and theatrical affairs, given that he did it at the Traverse.

Wednesday August 14th
11.00am: Shining Souls, Traverse
2.30pm: Chinese State Circus, Meadows
5.30pm: Fantastic Voyage, Pleasance
7.15pm: Parallel Lines, Traverse
9.00pm: Some Like It Hot, Inverleith Park

As with Reader last year, Shining Souls is another Traverse play - this one by Chris Hannan - where I have no memory of what it was about, but have a complete copy of the script in my programme collection. It's one of those plays that's incredibly difficult to get a handle on from the script - nine characters in a complex tale of fate, suicide, and matrimony, best summed up by Ann's attitude to her forthcoming wedding: "I've asked the minister to come round and if it happens it happens." Half the dialogue's in parenthetical asides, making it really difficult to work out how naturalistically it was played on the day. Less ambiguous pleasures followed with the Chinese State Circus, whose ad campaign for their 1996 show promised the once-in-a-lifetime spectacle of FOURTEEN GIRLS ON ONE BICYCLE! Not only did they deliver, but in a wholly unexpected development the ringmaster declared after the stunt "we're going to see if we can manage fifteen." And we all played along as if they'd never done this before, which is part of the magic that a really good circus can pull off.

Gavin Robertson's mime version of Thunderbirds had been a huge hit both on the Fringe and London's West End: his Fantastic Voyage did a similarly entertaining job of pastiching the Ray Harryhausen monster movies. It came back to the Fringe in 1999 under the new title of Fantastical Voyage, so I can only assume Robertson had been visited by some lawyers in the interim. Theatre Cryptic at the Traverse had a very interesting stab at adapting the Molly Bloom soliloquy from Ulysses for an actress, an opera singer, two musicians and a large tank of water. Finally, Some Like It Hot wasn't an adaptation but the real deal - a Stella sponsored open-air screening of the Billy Wilder classic. I'd assume these days such a screening would be done digitally, but this one ran off  a slightly ropey celluloid print: presumably I wasn't the only one holding my breath towards the end, praying that there wouldn't be any end-of-reel glitches in the final scene. There weren't. Hooray!

Thursday August 15th
12.30pm: Twelve, Pleasance
2.50pm: I Stole Freddie Mercury's Birthday Cake, Pleasance
3.50pm: Low Budget Film, Pleasance Cinema
4.15pm: Punk's Not Dead, Pleasance
7.30pm: Orlando, Royal Lyceum Theatre
10.00pm: Rich Hall, Gilded Balloon

Ben Moor's Twelve was one of his creepily comic (and comically creepy) one man shows, whose lead character's life is disrupted by a series of telephone calls slowly counting down from twelve to zero. Since then, I've always meant to catch another one of Moor's at the Fringe, but never got around to it - maybe in 2010, then. I have no plans to catch Malcolm Hardee at the 2010 Fringe, because he's dead: but this show where he read highlights from his just-published autobiography combined all of the pleasures of Malcolm's anarchic nature, without the risk of his genitals coming into contact with your nose. Low Budget Film was another forgettable short at the Pleasance mini cinema, now renamed Mini-Cinergy for reasons which will become clearer tomorrow. Elsewhere in the Pleasance, Richard Herring (now an established fixture on my Fringe booking list) showed with Punk's Not Dead that he could get a pretty amusing play out of his being just too young and middle class for punk rock. You can find out if that's true for yourself, as he's obligingly giving away the Punk's Not Dead script on his website for nowt.

I've just realised how 1996 was another one of those unbalanced Edinburgh experiences, in the sense of how it was all Fringe and Film Festival events. Nothing at all at the Book Festival, and - following the cancellation of Elsinore - only one International Festival performance, in the shape of Orlando. It's interesting to consider the parallels between Elsinore and Orlando: both were adaptations of literary classics reworked for a single performer (Miranda Richardson in this case) by a renowed experimental director (Robert Wilson, who went on to direct The Black Rider among others). So: an intriguing setup, big names behind it, and I've got a copy of the programme which proves I saw the show. So why can I not remember a single thing about Orlando? Beats me. After that, I wrapped up with Rich Hall - this was in the days before he came up with the Otis Lee Crenshaw character, so this was just the grumpy man himself improvising stories from the names of chocolate bars pulled randomly out of a bag, and so on. Maybe you had to be there.

Vivian Wu in The Pillow Book. I didn't intend for this to be a rude set of illustrations, it just came out that way. Friday August 16th
11.00am: The Architect, Traverse
1.30pm: Raising Heroes, Filmhouse
3.45pm: Taming Of The Shrew, Overseas House
6.00pm: Peter Greenaway Scene By Scene, Filmhouse
7.30pm: Billy's Holiday, Cameo
11.00pm: Cinergy, Odeon Clerk Street

Dammit. Another play at the Traverse I can't remember, and this time I don't have a script or even a programme I can crib from. The Architect was an early work by David Greig, and was adapted into a 2006 movie with Anthony LaPaglia and her off of Heroes, but beyond that I've got nothing. Raising Heroes - no relation, Hayden Panettiere fans - was being ambitiously touted as The World's First Gay Action Movie. What it ended up actually being was a slightly fey relationship drama (two gay guys struggle to adopt a child) cross-bred with a mob thriller (one of them accidentally witnesses a murder), with the two strands being crudely bashed against each other until they could justify a climax where the bear of the couple starts shooting people. I didn't dislike it, but a little more bad taste could have made something great out of it. Oxford Headlights - do you see what they did there? - put on a passable adaptation of Shrew, which I think I went to see because a relative of Grizelda's was in the cast.

And then it was all movie-related shenanegans for the rest of the day. Peter Greenaway's always fun when he's spouting off about the future of cinema: I can't remember what his predictions were for the 21st century, but wonder if they involved not having a single film of his get a commercial release in the UK for the whole of its first decade. Still, Greenaway's failures are by their very nature more interesting than Richard Wherrett's generic Ozcom Billy's Holiday, of which virtually no trace exists on the internet. As for Cinergy, it was a nightly multi-media happening taking place in one of the screens at the Odeon Clerk Street. This was back in the days when it still was a cinema, before a succession of Fringe promoters tried and failed to make it work as a theatre venue. (The current plan appears to be to turn it into a hotel called Zed. Or not.) Cinergy's tagline - 'London's Premier Multimedia Cabaret Club, with an emphasis on film' - was as gloriously unwieldy as the event itself. Hosted by Alan Connor Jr., The Guy From The Word That Nobody Remembers, it had new and culty short films (as seen at the Pleasance mini-cinema), home-made video promos by Fringe acts (this was where I first encountered the bonkers charm of Jane Bom-Bane), live comedy, the chance to play Playstation games on a cinema screen, and a guess-the-movie-just-from-the-audio film quiz with big prizes.  Guess what? I won the quiz, because nobody else in the audience was capable of hearing a movie clip involving Italian dialogue, fast driving and an impersonation of a sheep, and identifying it as being this one. Still, you'll be pleased to hear that my smartarsery did not go unpunished. Connor tried to offer me three different movie books as a prize only to find that I owned them all already, so he chucked a Time Out guide to Budapest at me and told me to fuck off.

Saturday August 17th
11.00am: Aardman Aardman Aardman, Filmhouse
1.00pm: Jerry Sadowitz, Gilded Balloon

Looking at my final day, I can see I was just about ready for another year off from Edinburgh: it was a morning of predictable comfort viewing. (And yes, I know what it looks like when I describe Jerry Sadowitz as being predictable comfort viewing, but you know what I mean.) The Aardman programme was the prelude to an onstage interview with co-founder Dave Sproxton a few days after I'd left town: it was a mixture of old favourites like A Close Shave, and new stuff like Wat's Pig and the early adventures of Angry Kid. Which would seem to lead us quite nicely into Jerry Sadowitz, except this was another one of his tamer afternoon shows of close-up magic. If you're only familiar with his comedy, you really need to see him doing card tricks some time: he's literally one of the best in the world, and he can tell you Madeleine McCann jokes while he's doing them too.

So yeah, not the most inspiring end to a week at the Festival. I was ready for a rethink, and luckily a family wedding in Ireland forced me to give Edinburgh a miss in 1997. The following year, I'd concocted a plan to bring some of Spank's Pals along with me, plus a way to ensure I wouldn't forget any of the shows I saw... which is where we came in.  Subsequent Edinburghs have been much more fun as a result, and I'm hoping the same applies when I go back in 2010. Being a monkey, and all.


Suzanne Vega in the club

Well I used to watch 'The Word' and I don't remember Alan Connor ?

I enjoyed the 'Grange Hill' where are they now clip though.

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(Have to admit, I had to re-read the article twice before I found the reference to Playstations that attracted this nobend.)


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